Category: Government and politics
The stuff of politics: Getting to know our material
Are institutions the raw material of politics? And if they are, what does that help us understand about the nature of politics (and the nature of institutions, for that matter)? Those are the questions explored in this thoughtful and thought provoking essay – where ‘institutions’ are to be understood much more broadly than merely organisations and structures, but something perhaps closer to norms, the way things are done, or more particularly the way things are done which lends them acceptance and legitimacy.
That is of course a pretty broad starting point and perhaps risks derailing the argument before it is properly underway – if pretty much anything can be an institution, then using them to explain something about politics risks being too thin to be useful. But that risk is neatly side stepped by talking about them in the context of a metaphor:
Imagine if we took all of society’s institutions and lined them up on a spectrum from liquid to solid. At one end we’d have institutions that are almost as fluid as water, having barely formed. At the other end we’d have institutions that are frozen hard like ice, holding our behaviour firm.
That spectrum seems very recognisable, as does the consequence of the metaphor, that more fluid things change more and are capable of being changed more than those at the frozen end. So step one in changing a frozen institution is to thaw it a little. Much of the thawing and freezing which goes on is climatic, it is the emergent consequence of the interaction of varied forces. To the extent that those forces are aligned, it may be possible to sense a direction of change, but there doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason why the net result should go in one direction or another, or support one political agenda or another. So that takes us to the next step in the argument, the means by which political activity can influence both the ambient temperature and more specific institutional change:
Politics and public policy, then, is about intervening with intention in the freezing and thawing, in recognition of the realities of power, working with focus and purpose to speed up, slow down, or redirect processes of institution-formation.
All of that then provides the basis for an interesting discussion about how to manage political interventions either to create or take advantage of thawed institutions, and from all of that to derive five reasons which are presented as ‘a useful corrective to the way we tend to think about politics and public policy.’ I can’t do any of that justice in a short precis, it’s well worth reading the whole thing.
It does leave me with two questions, though, about the nature of institutions and about the difference between continuous and discontinuous change.
Institutions are themselves complex entities. They can be deeply frozen and completely liquid at the same time and even in respect of the same behaviour. Where, for example, should we position the institutions of UK central government democracy? In both an organisational sense (what Parliament is and does) and a behavioural sense (the roles of the various actors involved), there is widespread frost, and in places the ice is very deep indeed. That there are parliamentary procedures which take place in Norman French is both trivially unimportant and a potent symbol of stable longevity. Over much shorter time periods, what we understand by labels such as ‘prime minister,’ ‘cabinet,’ ‘department,’ ‘election’, ‘scrutiny’, and very many more are all ostensibly pretty much unchanged for a hundred years or more.
But at the same, all those things have been very fluid. None of them operate in the way they did a century ago, arguably none of them operate in the way they did a decade ago. There are many reasons for that, but at least some of those reasons could be expressed in terms of change in other kinds of institutions, including those outside the stuctures of the state and formal politics altogether. In one sense, all of that is simply a way of saying that structures tend to change more slowly than behaviours. But it does mean, I think, that there is a need for care in thinking about institutions in the very broad sense used in this essay: the question of where an institution is between being thawed and frozen is surely always going to be a question about characteristics of the institution chosen to be relevant to the question at hand, rather than being a single intrinsic characteristic of the institution in its every aspect.
The process of thawing can be a gradual one and much of the shared imagery in a temperate country such as the UK encourages us to think about it in that way (which is itself a form of institution). That’s reflected in how examples of change are described, such as this one:
Take an institution like the dress code of white collar office work. It’s been melting for years. A few decades ago, office dress codes were frozen firm, allowing little flex. Men wore suits and women wore skirts and blouses, no questions asked. Then the institution started to melt, sweating like an ice cube under the sun. Notice how the melting happens. The water that forms on the surface isn’t even; it beads into droplets of disobedience as whole departments or companies or sectors break away.
But that’s not how everything changes, it’s not even how thaws always happen. The calving of an iceberg does not have the slow dissolution of a melting ice cube. Many institutions can and do evolve gradually, but some inhibit change so, to draw in another metaphor, their brittleness becomes a critical thing to understand: how far does the twig bend before it snaps? Or to switch metaphor yet again, springs retain their fundamental characteristics while stretched and compressed, but only up to their elastic limit, when they become irreversibly deformed. Understanding whether we are seeing – and indeed whether we want to see – institutions stretching within or beyond their elastic range is important too. Indeed the purpose of some institutions is to inhibit change – that is arguably the primary purpose of constitutions – and their dampening effect can both provide useful stability and dangerous inertia in a changing environment.
That though perhaps takes us back to the central argument being made in this essay. We need to understand the institutional materials which make up politics, including their varied characteristics and behaviours, because understanding those materials gives us a better chance of understanding and influencing change:
There are valuable arguments to have about the way we balance individual freedoms and collective conceptions of justice, and about the character of the intuitions we build, and the ways in which institutions constrain us, or how they’re funded, or about their sources of legitimacy. But we’ll waste less time if we have these arguments in a way that reflects the kinds of things institutions are and the ways in which they behave. Statecraft, like any other craft, starts with knowing our material.
This is another perspective on the (unconfirmed) news of another attempt at civil service reform, unpicking why simplistic approaches are doomed to failure. As is so often the case, treating an aim defined in one way (“the civil service will be 20% smaller”) as if it were the same as a quite different aim (“the civil service should become more efficient”) leads to hopeless confusion. Or as Mark puts it:
Efficiency may lead to the need for fewer staff but fewer staff does not lead to greater efficiency.
This post also underlines in a different way why it is so important to look at all this from a systems perspective. Government can – and does – operate at different levels and different configurations, and there is no reason to think that, in a world where permanent secretaries worry about fixing school boilers, the current balance is anywhere close to optimal. Focusing on a single layer can, at the very best, result in optimising that layer; it cannot result in optimising the system.
Civil Service Reform – Lord Maude Tries Again
Martin Stanley – UK Civil Servant
‘Civil service reform’ is an unintentionally revealing phrase. Its use is a strong indicator of somebody who hasn’t thought through what problem they might be trying to solve, still less what actions might lead to solving it. That’s not because civil service reform is not necessary or not desirable – on the contrary, it is very necessary and very desirable. It is because the civil service (itself a huge collective noun, concealing variety at least as much as describing a singular entity) is part of a wider system. Honest reformers recognise the need to address that wider system; rhetorical reformers do not always feel the need to do so.
Prompted by press coverage suggesting that Francis Maude might be about to be invited to have a third attempt at civil service reform – and with the primary success criterion clearly being the extent to which the civil service ends up smaller as a result – Martin Stanley patiently explains why Maude’s first two attempts failed and why any third attempt is unlikely to do any better. He lists nine problems consistently identified in past reviews of the civil service, all of them depressingly recognisable. But what is perhaps most striking about the list is how much of it is rooted in what ministers and Parliament do (or don’t do) and how little of it is limited to what the civil service does in isolation from that wider system.
Again, that’s not an argument that all is well in the civil service or that nothing there needs to change. Almost exactly ten years ago, I wrote a blog post on this issue, prompted by the civil service reform plan published in Maude’s name. It is not reassuring that the last paragraphs of that post seem just as apposite today:
The civil service is big and complicated and there are important ways in which it could change for the better. But big and complicated as it is, it is also just a component of the wider system of government. The more radical the ambition for the civil service, the bigger the implications for that wider system will be.
If you want to change the system, you have to be ready to change the system.
The big idea: should we abolish the Treasury?
Stian Westlake asks an important question, gives the clearly correct answer, but curiously shys away from facing up to the reasons why the Treasury should indeed be done away with.
He lists a whole set of reasons why the Treasury is detrimental to good government, but rounds off his account of the systematic damage it does by asserting that:
The first step to addressing these problems is to recognise that they are not the result of a failing institution or of lazy or incompetent officials
They are certainly not the result of laziness or of incompetence in a narrow sense. But they are precisely the result of Treasury being a failing institution. That’s clearly not true in the delivery of its daily activities: the work gets done, decisions are made, budgets are delivered, smart people are employed. But in a more important sense – the sense that Stian is quite rightly concerned about – it is.
There is huge talent and energy in the Treasury. But it operates in a culture which results in its doing at least as much harm as good. Of course the functions it performs need to be done in any government, but as Stian demonstrates, they certainly don’t need to be done in their current organisational configuration. And it is precisely because they do need to be done that we can see that it is the organisational configuration which is the problem.
Indeed, Stian goes on to make that very point:
The root cause is the structure of the organisation, and the incentives and culture that it fosters.
That sounds to me pretty much the definition of a failing organisation. But I labour the point not to split hairs, but because I think it strengthens the argument in the article. The reforms suggested would arguably be disproportionate as a solution to mild problems in a benign organisation. But if the problems are severe, creating a threat to the effectiveness of any government, the solutions must be proportionately radical to have any chance of success.
10 Things I Learnt in Government … not without pain
This is a beguilingly simple list of ten things necessary to understand in order to get things done in government. It’s the best list of its kind I have ever seen, with a great deal of insight captured in remarkably few words.
It is, more particularly, a way into understanding how the policy and ministerial end of government works, with insights which are not only valuable for people coming into that world, but also, I suspect, are useful reminders for those familiar with it.
Unintentionally, it also provides an answer to common cries of despair from people whose work brings them close to but not quite into that world. Recognising these ten points will not be (and perhaps should not be) a cure for that frustration, but has the potential to navigate more effectively within the world they describe.
Government Digital Service: Our strategy for 2021-2024
Strategies always intend to say something about the future. They rarely intend to say much about the past, but almost invariably say more than they first appear to.
There are of course debates to be had about whether this is the right strategy for GDS to have for the next three years and about whether GDS is well positioned to deliver that strategy even if the strategy itself is the right one. But here it is worth reflecting on a slightly different question.
We now have a quarter of a century of experience of digital government. This strategy builds on foundations which are deep, if not always entirely solid. Or perhaps it is better to think of its being built on archaeological strata, history which shapes and informs the present, even if much of that history has been lost and forgotten.
From that perspective, one of the things which is most striking is how stable the strategy has been over decades. The five missions GDS has set itself for the next three years would have been recognised – and enthusiastically endorsed – by their predecessors of twenty years ago. That holds true to quite a surprising level of detail. Joined up ‘whole services’, such as having a baby or preparing to retire, are an aspiration for the future – just as having a baby and pensions and retirement were two one of the first ‘life episodes’ built for UK Online at the turn of the millennium.
That prompts two thoughts. One is to repeat some words I wrote as gov.uk was first being turned on. Another decade later, they still ring true:
The innovation of gov.uk does not lie in the concepts it embodies. What is striking is not how new those are, but how little different from the ambitions of a decade ago.
The second is to ask whether that tells us anything interesting. The point here is not to wallow in nostalgia or suggest that the past was a better place. It wasn’t – not in this respect, at least. Instead, it’s an opportunity to think over a longer timescale than we usually do, a kind of long now of digital government. And from that perspective, being agile suddenly looks fractal. That whole twenty year view can be seen as a single set of iterations, a minimum viable product becoming less minimal and more viable each time round – as ever, it’s not iterative if you only do it once.
That recognition should, perhaps, makes us both more ambitious and more humble. If it it is going to have taken us the best part of 25 years to create an effective, joined-up having a baby service, that is surely many years too long. Ten years from now, five years from now, there should be a more distinctive strategy because the current (and long standing) ambition should have been achieved. But since it has taken so long, it becomes the more important to be highly aware of the systemic constraints and enablers of change. There have been times in its past when GDS’s self-belief has outstripped its ability to operate in a complex and conservative system. It has to understand its environment if it is to maximise its effectiveness in changing it.
It is a pleasing curiosity that we got the strategy right a long time ago, but it matters more that the conditions of success for its implementation were far weaker then than they are now. The strategy is not delivery, but delivery is the test of strategy that matters. The strategic challenge for GDS is to make its strategy redundant.
Civil service reform – noise without substance
This is a splendid – and splendidly acerbic – twenty tweet twitter thread on UK civil service reform in 2020, or rather on the absence of any effective change compared with other, generally more low key efforts over the past forty years.
(the title has been added, as twitter threads don’t have them)
The Inspector’s Dilemma
Public bodies do many things, not all of them necessarily at the front of mind when we think about what governments do and how those things might be done better. One of those things is, broadly, inspection – checking to see that requirement which should be met are being met (and sometimes to see whether failures reflect inadequate requirements or poor compliance). The existence of regulation and inspection raise an important question about the attribution of responsibility: does the very existence of a regulatory system shift responsibility inappropriately, does it in effect create a form of moral hazard? And if the answer turns out in practice to be to fudge the issue, the consequences may turn out to be very bad.
What Dominic Cummings got right
Most of what appears in Strategic Reading is chosen because it makes an interesting argument well. Just occasionally something makes it in because while the argument may be interesting, it is not persuasively made. Perhaps the publisher of this piece had some doubts too – the original title, preserved in the URL, was ‘Cummings was right about our government’s failings’, softened to its current version a few hours later.
Dominic Cummings’ contempt for the machinery of UK government is well known. That that machinery has serious weaknesses is unarguable, but whether either his diagnosis or his prescription serve to address those weaknesses is quite another matter. This account of his thinking boldly asserts that “Notwithstanding what he failed to get done while in government, his analysis of it should be taken seriously.” But his failure to get anything much done in government unavoidably brings into question whether his analysis should be taken at all seriously.
The core argument, borrowed from Cummings himself, but repeated and amplified here is based on a sleight of hand. The diagnosis is at a grand scale – it is the state capacity of liberal democracies, their systems of governance and their political institutions which are not up to the challenge of addressing crises, tested against the slightly unlikely standard set by the Chinese Communist Party. But the solution is a much narrower one: “drastic reform of the state bureaucracy, perhaps on a decentralised model that severs the dead hand of Whitehall.” The problem with that is not that the civil services has already reached a state of perfection – it is very far from that. It is that the civil service, big and complex as it is, is only part of a much wider system, which Cummings and his apologists seem determined to ignore.
There is indeed a crisis of governance in the UK. If we address that crisis, we may end up with a better civil service. But if we try to fix the civil service, there is no chance that that will solve the crisis of governance.
How should government manage big risks – pandemics to financial shocks?
Another Geoff Mulgan post, but a very different one from his reflections on the imaginary crisis, which spanned continents, philosophies and centuries. This one is a rigorously pragmatic account of how governments should manage risk effectively, using the UK as a case study and drawing on Geoff’s own experience of working in government.
There is much to reflect on in the post, but one of the points which comes through very clearly is the need to accept apparent short-term inefficiency, in the form of many kinds of excess capacity, in order to maximise overall long-term efficiency and effectiveness. There is of course an important debate to be had about how much of what kinds of capacity is worth paying for, but if that debate takes place in a political environment in which short-term cost efficiency is valued above all else, it is not likely to end in the optimal place.
Governments can’t avoid being the insurer of last resort for high impact risks. It matter to all of us that the premiums are kept paid up.
Preparing for risks is costly. It takes people and resources away from immediate priorities. But ultimately protecting people from risk is the heart of what government is for, and good bureaucracy manages risk systematically. Indeed, times like this remind us why boring, competent, reliable and forward-looking bureaucracy is so vital to helping us live our lives freely. They worry so that we don’t have to.
Introducing a ‘Government as a System’ toolkit
It’s been fascinating to watch the iterative development of Policy Lab’s synthesis of how governments get things done. It has now mutated into something bigger and more ambitious, nothing less than a toolkit for developing and managing government as a system
Its centrepiece is a grid of 56 actions, mapped by approach to power and by position in the design cycle, There’s a huge amount of thought and experience baked into it, giving the potential to be a really valuable tool for framing issues in systems thinking terms.
From that perspective, there may be almost equal value in a second diagram, which expands the double diamond model into a chain of gems which map to the columns of the action grid.
But it’s important to recognise what this isn’t as well as what it is. It is a toolkit which is helpful in thinking about government as a system, it is not itself a depiction of that system. The grid is not a map, as the post at one point implies; rather it is a key to system maps as yet largely undrawn. An atlas of those maps, of various scales, complexity and precision would be a thing of wonder, but it is not an atlas we yet have – or probably could ever have, bringing to mind as it does Borges’ one paragraph short story, On Exactitude in Science. That’s not to diminish the power of the key and the approach, but it does very much reinforce the point that this is a toolkit, not a solution.
It will more interesting still to see where this might go next. This version is government as a system. The direction of travel points to a view which will increasingly be more about government in a system.
Things Fall Apart
There is an almost universal belief, no less strong for being almost as universally unspoken, that the UK political system is an exemplar of stability and moderation. There is a related belief, near universal among those most affected by it, that being a non-political civil servant is unproblematic, precisely because of those characteristics of the wider political system.
Those beliefs have been pretty resistant to evidence. Reflections on civil service ethics generate little interest. The remarkable resignation letter of a British diplomat in the USA cracked the facade, but the crack is already healing. This post takes that resignation as its starting point for a deeper examination of the fragility of civil society. It is short and pointed; alarmed but not alarmist. It sets a challenge. It is not clear where an effective response to that challenge will come from.
A Manifesto for Better Government
Adrian Brown – Centre for Public Impact
This in some ways a follow up to Adrian Brown’s previous post, but it stands firmly on its own merits doing exactly what the title suggests. It starts with three beliefs, derives seven values from them, and from that combination asserts six principles for action. There’s room for debate about whether these are precisely the right three, seven or six – and that would be a very good debate to have, while at the same time rather missing the point.
Dominant metaphors change over time – often quite a long time. For a century or more, the machine, and more recently the computer, have been the dominant metaphor for systems and organisations, and even for people. That metaphor has not been unchallenged of course – the agile manifesto, of which this is a no doubt conscious echo – can be seen as an attempt to do exactly that. This manifesto is based much more on networks and relationships and, crucially, a view of knowledge which places rich understanding at the periphery of the organisation, closest to its external signals, rather than at its heart. A system operating on those lines would be both more resilient and more responsive and there is much which is highly attractive in the manifesto.
It does not address the perennial hard question of political organisational change. It is easy – relatively – to have a vision of a better future. It is much harder to work out how to get there from here. But that should be taken not as a criticism, but as an important challenge to everybody interested in better government.
On being and doing in Government
Adrian Brown – Centre for Public Impact
What should government do? And, how should it do it? Those are two critically important questions, which fortunately get a lot of time and attention – even though it’s not hard to argue that they still don’t have good enough answers. But there is a third question which is at least as important, but which gets much less attention: what should governments be?
It is that question which is at the centre of this post. One reason why it has not had the attention it deserves is that a generation or two of public servants have been brought up not to notice it: the New Public Management paradigm that efficient delivery is pretty much all of what it’s about has become so pervasive as to be invisible. And that’s unfortunate in that it is neither value free (how could it be?) nor, as it turns out, is it a very good way of making governments work. NPM (and other strands of thought) are right that government does not exist for the benefit of people who work in it as politicians and officials. Its insights and methods have a place. But systems operated by and for humans need to have humans at their heart, and to recognise that it is the relationships and values those humans have which makes those systems work effectively – or even perhaps at all.
Civil servants civilly serve
Stefan Czerniawski – Public Strategist
A first time entry in Strategic Reading for this apparently well-established blogger, this post looks at the ethical issues civil servants and civil services should – but largely don’t – consider if the chain of democratic legitimacy for the actions of government is broken or weakened.
The post ducks the core question of whether the tipping point has been reached and indeed implies that there will be a strong, but dangerous, temptation to acknowledge it only with hindsight.
But nevertheless this is one which civil servants and others interested in the health of the political system should read and reflect on – and ask themselves whether and when they may need to act.
Time for a tactical withdrawal
The UK government design principles – last updated only a few days ago – still unambiguously assert:
10. Make things open: it makes things better
We should share what we’re doing whenever we can. With colleagues, with users, with the world. Share code, share designs, share ideas, share intentions, share failures. The more eyes there are on a service the better it gets – howlers are spotted, better alternatives are pointed out, the bar is raised.
But of course the clarity of the principle is no guarantee of the consistency of its observation – and this post argues strongly both that the principle is now less observed than in the headier times of recent years and that this is a very bad thing.
That prompts the question of whether openness is – or can be – an independent variable, separate from the wider political context. I have argued elsewhere that it is far easier for civil servants to be open about some kinds of activity than others, and that in particular that it is easier to be open about process than about substance. So it is possible that what has changed is the balance of activity; it’s possible that overall levels of political sensitivity have gone up – but it is also possible that openness is still seen as a slightly maverick activity, and that it will tend to decline unless it is actively nurtured.
The rhetoric of openness – not just in the design principles but, for example in the availability of tools for open policy making (to say nothing of broader initiatives such as OECD’s observatory of public sector innovation) – is still alive and well. If the substance is fading, this post should be read as much as a call to arms as an acknowledgement of retreat.
We’re missing the point of digital government
Martin Stewart-Weeks and Simon Cooper – Apolitical
‘The point about the digital transformation of government,’ the authors observe, ‘is that digital transformation isn’t the point.’ That apparently trite thought both unlocks some very important questions and also forces confrontation with the fact that some of those questions are very hard – which is perhaps why they have so often been wished away. It doesn’t help that ‘digital’ is used by many as a synonym for ‘technological’, so creating near limitless opportunities for mutual confusion. This article attempts to defuse that confusion by identifying four broad drivers of change, only one of which is directly about technology. It will perhaps be a mark of progress when we can get beyond calling the result digital transformation at all.
But once past that, this is a serious and important attempt to understand how governments – both the ones we have, and the ones they might become – are responding to changes in the environment in which they operate. Government is about service design, but it is also about democracy and engagement, about visibility and legitimacy. Too many technologists don’t understand how government works; too many people in government don’t understand what technology could and should be doing for them and for the people they serve – and both groups too often fail to realise that hard boundaries between them are themselves part of the problem.
The article is a teaser for the authors’ new book, Are we there yet? (spoiler: no). Its focus is on Australia, but that shouldn’t discourage readers from elsewhere, who will see issues they recognise and will have much to gain from the understanding and insight with which they are discussed.
Government as a Platform
Richard Pope posted a series of tweets linking to all the outputs from his time as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. It’s some of the most sustained thinking and writing on digital government by somebody deeply involved in doing it there is, so since tweets sit at the curious intersection of the ephemeral and the permanent, it seemed worth bringing it all together. What follow are lightly edited versions of those tweets.
Government as a Platform Playbook
In part based on interviews with people from digital service groups around the world. Aims to provides teams building platforms in government with actionable guidance.
Government as a Platform – the hard problems
These are mostly bigger political/policy questions that need political capital to resolve.
Part 2 – The design of services & public policy
Part 3 – Shared components, APIs and the machinery of government
Part 4 – Data infrastructure and registers
1. Cross-government registers, shared components and open APIs
2. Design systems and standards
3. Service standards and other technical standards (and a short article explaining the rationale)
Government as a platform reading list and various other resources
Stand-alone articles and blog posts:
The case for a design archive for digital services
The narrative around “data-sharing” in government needs resetting
Street lighting in suburban London: a parable for digital government
Digital service standards and platforms
Platforms for government? Platforms for society?
Interview with Will Myddelton – UK Government as a Platform programme
Making public policy in the digital age
Ten reform priorities for the new Prime Minister
New leaders rarely lack for advice on what their priorities should be and how they should approach them. This is a classic of its kind, well argued, well evidenced, addressing important issues – and yet missing something important in the gap between diagnosis and prescription.
The basic premise is that a political crisis should prompt a new prime minster to embrace structural reform of government, rather than to avoid or postpone it. That is almost certainly a forlorn hope – the capacity for reform of this kind is probably most available when the apparent need is least pressing – but that shouldn’t stop us reflecting on the merits of the ideas.
Many of the specific ideas put forward are sensible and serious, though there is a tendency to see centralisation and top down control as self-evidently ways of making things better. But the overall argument is undermined by missing out two big issues, both prompted by taking more of a systems perspective to the problem, which together point to the need for a theory of change to shape understanding of how real system improvement could be achieved.
The first is prompted by Stafford Beer’s aphorism, “the purpose of a system is what it does”. Observing that some aspects of the current do not work well and identifying alternatives which look as though they might work better is relatively easy. But it’s a safe assumption that nobody intended or wanted the system to work badly – the myth of civil service obstructiveness is exactly that – so to the extent that it does, understanding why the current system is as it is, and therefore whether different approaches would deliver different outcomes is less straightforward.
The second is that the system at issue is bigger than the one presented here and in particular that it is a political system. It is often tempting but often unhelpful to think of systems as machines, rather than as organisms, perhaps doubly so in political systems. Nobody should be criticised for wanting to change and improve things, but it is essential to recognise that if you want to change the system, you have to change the system.